(Dir. Fei Mu, China, 1948)
To Be or Not to Be Happy
Often considered the greatest Chinese language film of all time, Fei Mu’s pre-Revolution domestic drama Spring in a Small Town still lives up to its reputation to this day though it suffers some – as so many films from smaller pockets of international cinema do – from limited distribution and a desperate need for proper restoration. It’s classic narrative cinema that finds its filmmaker fittingly exploring the tension between societal norms and personal happiness as his nation teeters on the brink of a massive political and cultural shift. Interestingly, the Communist takeover also saw the new leftist majority reject Fei’s film, and it remained shunned for decades. Perhaps the film’s central concern regarding individual choices while the nation as a whole moved toward an extreme form of collectivism accounts for its initial poor reception.
Despite the Communist disapproval, Fei’s Spring in a Small Town is actually remarkably objective in its approach. It’s one of the film’s greatest strengths that it recognizes and agonizes with the parties involved in its central conflict, but it never attempts to push either side. Whether the lonely housewife Yuwen (Wei Wei) remains adherent to moral tradition by remaining unhappily married to her husband Liyan (Shi Yu) or pursues a new life of potential happiness with her former love Zhichen (Li Wei), Fei’s film appears ultimately unconcerned. Instead, he seeks to navigate the turbulent emotions of his four leads and reveal how this unlikely circumstance changes each of them. Yuwen’s is the film’s primary voice, and we are introduced to her first. She lives a quiet life with her invalid husband and his younger sister Xiu (Zhang Hongmei) on his family’s crumbling estate in the country. Through her voiceover narration, we learn of her unhappiness and the loveless marriage she has with her distant husband. “I have no courage to die, and he has no courage to live,” she intones as if resigned to the despairing life she leads.
Matters are complicated when Liyan’s childhood friend Zhichen unexpectedly comes to visit. They haven’t seen each other in ten years, and when this patriarch introduces his guest to his wife, we learn that Yuwen and Zhichen were once lovers before she met Liyan. He stays for some time, as feelings once thought lost are unearthed in both Yuwen and Zhichen who clearly never stopped loving each other. Yuwen is torn between her duty to her husband, and Zhichen agonizes over his close friendship with Liyan. Meanwhile, Xiu takes a liking to this visitor, and Liyan sees an opportunity to marry off his little sister to a family friend. Though Fei provides ample screen time to each of these four for us to understand and care for them, the film’s voice remains with Yuwen throughout. Cleverly, her subjective thought processes grow into a form of omniscient narration as her voice provides exposition for portions of the story when she is not present. This gives the film a welcome literary quality that seeks to uncover each of these characters in turn, but insists on maintaining a singular perspective through which we experience the events unfolding on screen.
In its story and theme, Spring in a Small Town is fondly reminiscent of Satyajit Ray’s superior Charulata released nearly two decades later. It’s difficult to ascertain if Fei’s film provided inspiration for Ray’s, but the similarities are unmistakable. As with that great film, one of Spring’s finest attributes lies in its refusal to give this story a villain. Yuwen’s husband is never abusive or harsh with her, thus his character offers no easy answer to Yuwen’s crucial decision to stay or leave. And, while Charu’s husband is likewise no villain either, his sin resides in his obliviousness to his own wife’s suffering. In contrast, Yuwen’s husband not only suspects her unhappiness, he nearly expects it given the state of his health and their subsequent lifeless union. In this way, Fei casts Liyan in just as much a sympathetic light as Yuwen. This good-natured quality that each of his characters possesses only intensifies the struggle for them and us as deeply invested viewers.
In the end, Liyan’s self-preserving decision to commit suicide precipitates the inevitable decision Yuwen and Zhichen know they must make. Zhichen is able to resuscitate his friend, and Yuwen comes face to face with what her personal desires may have caused. Yuwen decides to stay with and nurse her husband back to health, and Zhichen determines to leave the following day. Though this outcome is a bit expected, a brief scene included prior to the finale is refreshingly unexpected, and is perhaps one of the film’s greatest. Xiu leaves her brother’s room where he is recovering and finds Yuwen waiting outside. She encourages her sister-in-law not to worry too much, but then abruptly asks her if she and Zhichen are in love. Yuwen bursts into tears and nods. No sooner these women are in each other’s arms, consoling one another and perhaps even sympathizing with the other’s position. It’s a remarkably human ending for these characters. No switch flipped within Yuwen to automatically make her love Liyan instead of Zhichen, but she ultimately chooses duty over her own happiness. This short sequence conveys just how difficult that decision can truly be. Fei delivers an optimistic conclusion, if not necessarily heartwarming, for his characters. Xiu sees Zhichen off to the train station, and he promises to return the following year. Yuwen and Liyan stand side by side for the first time atop the city’s wall watching their guest depart. There is likely mutual understanding, but there also seems to be a glimpse of a commitment that these two share to work toward improving their situation. Happiness comes from what we choose to make of our circumstances, after all, and for this married couple, things might not be as hopeless as they once thought.